It’s my pleasure to welcome Holly Kench to my blog today. Holly is one of my fave spec fic people, and the Defying Doomsday anthology looks like it will not only be an incredible read (as you would imagine from a Twelfth Planet Press book!), but a very important book. I have already backed it, and I would encourage you to think about it, too.
As an author, it can be a little intimidating trying to write characters who have different experiences and lives to you, but in this excellent post Holly gives us some very handy hints–lessons that I think have applications beyond the remit of this anthology, and helpful for writing any character that is different in anyway to ourselves, whether through gender, orientation, creed or race.
Tips for Writing Disabled Characters
Apocalypse fiction rarely includes characters with disability, chronic illness and other impairments. When these characters do appear, they usually die early on, or are secondary characters undeveloped into anything more than a burden to the protagonist. Defying Doomsday will be an anthology showing that disabled characters have far more interesting stories to tell in post-apocalyptic/dystopian fiction.
Defying Doomsday will be edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, and published by Twelfth Planet Press in mid 2016. Defying Doomsday is currently crowdfunding via Pozible. To support the project visit: http://pozi.be/defyingdoomsday
When writing, stepping outside your comfort zone can be pretty intimidating and I think, for most people, writing disabled* characters seems to fit in the “out of my comfort zone” category. So I’m here to give a few tips on how to tackle disabled characters in your writing.
- Avoid stereotypes and clichés
A lot of disabled characters currently available to us fit into problematic stereotypes and clichés. Because they are so ubiquitous in our culture, it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing stereotyped characters. Stereotypes are never helpful in general, and they are certainly never interesting in stories, but when it comes to disabled characters, stereotypes can be, arguably, even more damaging than usual, since the views they perpetuate can be so negative and harmful. Some of these stereotypes include (but are not limited to) general disability clichés such as: the disabled character is a burden or inspiration, and the character’s impairment is something that needs to be fixed; and impairment specific clichés such as: albino characters are evil, and blind characters can use echolocation.
A good way to avoid stereotypes is to ask yourself why you are portraying your character in a certain way. Is it because you associate a certain character trait or storyline with disability? Or is it just part of the development of your story and characterisation? For example, while “evil disabled character” is a common cliché, it’s still possible to have a disabled character who is ‘evil’ without it becoming a stereotype. The question is, does the character have a reason for behaving badly? Or was the character written as disabled to seem more frightening?
- Do your research
Try not to make assumptions about life with disability, especially if those assumptions are based on common things you’ve seen in the media or other works of fiction. Do research to find out how your character’s life might be affected by disability. Research the medical realities of your character’s impairment/s, but also realise that disability is about external factors, and research how life might be made difficult for your character by different situations and expectations.
There are a couple of good ways to do your research. Of course talking to a person who has experienced disability is one possibility. It’s great to get information based on real life experiences from disabled people. But remember that people with disability don’t exist to be your human encyclopaedia. It’s not their responsibility to educate you. Always ask politely and understand if this isn’t something they want to talk about. If they are happy to discuss the topic, listen and trust their experiences, even (especially) if they aren’t what you expect. Also remember that everyone is different, so one person’s experience of disability, or even a particular impairment, will not necessarily be the same as the next.
So what if you can’t talk to someone? Use the internet. In fact, it’s probably a good idea to do some research on the internet as well, anyway. There are a multitude of sites available that talk about different types of impairments, from the medical realities, to the day to day implications, as well as sites that talk more broadly about life with disability. There are also quite a few pieces available about how to write disabled characters. My strongest recommendation is to especially read sites and pieces which are written by disabled people, rather than sites that talk about disabled people and their experiences from an outside perspective.
- Make sure your character has depth
While you want to make sure you research the ways disability affects your character’s life, you also need to remember that there is more to any person’s life than disability, and the same should be the case for your character. Just as you want to avoid stereotypes, you want to make sure your character is multidimensional. Interesting characters have identities informed by a range of experiences, their own histories and all those little intangible factors that make people whole and fascinating. This is the same for disabled characters. Disabled people aren’t synonymous with disability. They have identities, personalities and experiences beyond how they are affected by their impairments or how the world treats them because of those impairments. Of course, disability is going to affect your characterisation, because it’s an important part of your character’s history and experience, but it’s not everything. Disabled people have full lives and complex identities, so try to ensure your disabled characters have full characterisations.
- Give it a try. You have nothing to lose
The last point to remember is not to be afraid to try to write disabled characters. Disabled people are just like anyone else–complex, interesting, deserving of a place in your storytelling. Stepping outside your comfort zone is good. It’s good for you, your writing, and the genre. But, if you think about it, writing disabled characters might not be as far outside your comfort zone as you think, anyway. After all, disabled people are just people. Disabled characters are just characters, but they might have a story that hasn’t been told just yet.
Tsana Dolichva and I are currently editing an anthology of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, featuring disabled, chronically ill, mentally ill and/or neurodiverse protagonists. We are currently holding a crowdfunding campaign through Pozible to fund the anthology. To support the campaign or to preorder a copy of Defying Doomsday, visit: http://pozi.be/defyingdoomsday. Your support is greatly appreciated!
We will also be holding an open submissions period once the campaign is over, so keep an eye out for more information and submission guidelines on our website. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
*For the sake of ease, I’m just using the word disabled, but everything I’ve talked about counts for people who identify as disabled, chronically ill, neuro-diverse, mentally-ill etc; and the characters that might represent these identities.